Republicans in Minnesota, who occupy no statewide offices and hold minority status in both chambers of the Legislature, count most of their wins during the 2014 session in blocks and tackles.
A major block: keeping the two-year bonding total from rising above $1 billion, they say. Republicans couldn’t block most of the $2.1 billion in tax increases passed last year, but joined with Democrats to pass about $550 million in tax cuts this session, including three business-to-business taxes that they pressured DFLers to repeal.
Republicans also couldn’t block an increase in the state’s minimum wage from $6.15 to $9.50 per hour this session, and they publicly blasted a $77 million Senate office building project as it moved through the process — but those will be campaign-trail fodder.
Republicans will kick off the campaign season in earnest Monday with fly-around stops in Duluth, Moorhead, Luverne, Austin and St. Cloud. While Senate Republicans aren’t on the ballot until 2016, House Republicans have a shot at taking back the majority this fall, needing just seven additional seats in the 134-member body.
Early snippets of their campaign stump speech points to a message that focuses on the economy.
“There’s a lot of polices that Democrats have been pursuing that we think are going to be damaging to Minnesota families,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said Friday, a few hours before legislators adjourned ahead of schedule. “We’ve been pretty cooperative in trying to get out of here quickly. The more quickly we get out of here, the less damage Democrats can do.”
Some GOP provisions passed
There were at least a few instances in which Republicans helped pass legislation beneficial to them. That includes an $846 million bonding bill that only needed eight Republican votes to pass, but still included millions of dollars of projects in GOP districts. Some of those projects were tucked into a $200 million cash bill that funded additional construction projects.
“The bonding bill is the House Republican bonding bill. Not the Senate Republicans — the House Republicans,” Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said.
Republicans also got a major win in fully funding the completion of the Lewis and Clark water pipeline in the state’s southwest corner. Federal funding dried up for the project, but the cash bonding proposal included $22 million for the pipeline and an 11th-hour tax-bill compromise that will pay the remainder of the nearly $70 million project through local taxes and future state Local Government Aid cutbacks.
Other issues are a little more complicated, such as passing the nation’s most restrictive medical marijuana law. Many Republicans in both chambers voted for the law, and some backed even broader legalization, but most won’t be quick to tout it as a win on the campaign trail.
“I don’t know that I would call it [a success],” Daudt said Friday. “There are people who have been suffering from seizures and other things, and this may be one of the only things that will help them. I think stopping short of the smoking portion of the marijuana is good.”
Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, however thinks medical marijuana compromise is something Republicans can advertise to Minnesotans. “I think it is it’s an important issue,” he said. “It affects a lot of families.”
Focusing on the economy
In setting up the 2014 election, many Republicans look at straight economics. They’ll criticize the minimum wage increase as something that will hurt small businesses and cost jobs. What’s more, revenues over the last several months have come in slightly under projections, but legislative spending proposals passed this year have a big price tag in the years to come, they say.
“This legislative biennium has added $6 billion in increased spending to the state budget — that’s remarkable. That’s on a pace twice as fast as we saw under [Gov. Tim] Pawlenty and that’s unsustainable,” Senate Minority Leader David Hann said. “I think going into the next election, Republicans are going to have a very strong message to bring to the state that one-party rule by Democrats has proven to be a very costly enterprise.”
But policy and social issues could still come to play in some conservative-leaning districts where Democrats hold seats, Davids said, including the bill to legalize gay marriage passed last year and a push this year — albeit failed — to give immigrants driver’s licenses.
Senate office building targeted
Two of the biggest issues already being used against Democrats is the troubled rollout of the state’s health insurance exchange, MNsure, and the passage of a $77 million Senate office project — $90 million is the commonly used number by Republicans, which includes a user-financed parking facility.
The building will hold senators who will be temporarily and permanently displaced from the 105-year-old Capitol building during its multi-year restoration, but Republicans say it’s an example of wasteful spending.
“That’s going to be a $90 million stone around their neck,” Davids said.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, also points to the 2016 ballot initiative that will establish an independent council to set legislator’s pay instead of legislators setting it themselves. Democrats tout it as a way to take the conflict of interest out of the issue, but Republicans have criticized it as a defacto pay increase for lawmakers, as only one similar council in the nation has actually cut lawmakers’ pay.
“I used to think that the constitutional amendment on gay marriage was the most politically foolish amendment ever — but I’m starting to think, with the constitutional amendment to raise their own pay, the Democrats have outdone us,” Garofalo said. “There are lots of good government types who will just say, this amendment does not do what it says it does.”
Garofalo also looks at the political landscape and sees hope. It’s a midterm election, meaning DFL support will drop off considerably, and demographics in many swing districts favor Republicans, he said.
“Statistically speaking, the Republicans have a significant chance of taking back the House of Representatives. It wont be easy,” he said. “The Democrats campaign will be, ‘Yes, we raised taxes, and yes, we’ve raised spending, but look at all the good things we are doing with the money.’ We are going to say, ‘We can do good things for Minnesota without pounding you on the head with reckless taxes and reckless spending.’”